The Anthropology of Humanitarianism

Please note: This page refers to a course that has already taken place.

28 - 30 Nov 2018

PRIO, Hausmanns gate 3, Oslo

Kristin Bergtora Sandvik, (UiO),

Upon full participation and the satisfactory completion of a course essay, the course equals 5 ECTS according to the standards of the University of Oslo.

Marte Nilsen,

​This course is intended for an interdisciplinary audience of humanitarian studies and peace and conflict studies. The course will deal with key topics such as the anthropology of forced migration, the thematic and methodological challenges of studying conflict and crisis in anthropology, the disciplines historical engagement with emergencies and human suffering and the contemporary legalization and financialization of the humanitarian field and finally the changing humanitarian-development-security nexus. The course aims to give participants an overview of the field as well as give an introduction to the possibilities and challenges that arise with using ethnographic approaches to the study of humanitarian action and humanitarianism. The course will be a collaboration with PRIO and the Department of Criminology and Sociology of Law, University of Oslo.  

Application deadline: 16 September, 2018  

Course Description:

​In parallel to the expansion of the global humanitarian system, there has been a general rise of humanitarianism as field of study.  Anthropology is arguably the most established discipline with a focus on humanitarianism, which can be explained by the discipline's focus on 'the other' beyond the nation state. The literature has predominantly concerned itself with how people - recipients, practitioners, decision makers and donors - interact with the discourses, symbolisms, structures, institutions and rules of humanitarianism. This literature has also focused on testimonies and witnessing; the artefacts of humanitarianism; humanitarianism as an instance of transnational linkages; the camp, biopolitics and medical humanitarianism.

About the lecturers:

Antonio De Lauri is a Senior Researcher at the Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI) and the coordinator of Humanitarianism and Borders. He holds a PhD in «Human Sciences: Anthropology of the Contemporary» (2010). He has conducted research in Afghanistan and Pakistan and has published on issues related to legal reconstruction, human rights, injustice, corruption, judicial practice, war, forms of extreme dependence, freedom, and humanitarianism. He currently works on humanitarian diplomacy and humanitarian borders.

Åshild Kolås is a social anthropologist and Research Professor at PRIO. Her work focuses among other on political violence and peacebuilding in India and Myanmar. She has published several books on Tibet, and numerous articles in journals such as Human Organization, Development and Change, The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology, Social Identities and Alternatives.

Bill Derman is Professor Emeritus at the Department of International Environment and Development Studies, Norwegian University of the Life Sciences (NMBU). His fields of specialization are: Environmental Anthropology, Political Ecology, Sociocultural Change, Agrarian Transformation, Anthropology of Development, River Basin Development, Social Impact Analysis, Economic Anthropology, Southern Africa, andWest Africa.

Cindy Horst is a social anthropologist and a Research Director and Research Professor in Migration and Refugee Studies at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO). Her research focuses on the migration-development nexus, including diaspora engagement with regions of origin and the transnational activities of refugees. Horst is the author of Transnational Nomads: How Somalis cope with refugee life in the Dadaab camps of Kenya (Berghahn, 2006). Her work has appeared in Conflict, Security and Development; Development and Change; Ethnicities; Journal of Refugee Studies; Refuge; Refugee Survey Quarterly; and Social Analysis among other.

Kristin Bergtora Sandvik is a legal anthropologist and a professor at the Department of Criminology and Sociology of Law at the university of Oslo and a research professor in humanitarian studies at PRIO. Her research agenda focuses on refugee resettlement and the technologization and legalization of humanitarian space. She has published in Law and Society Review, Feminist Legal Studies, PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review, Journal of Human Rights Practice, International Journal of Refugee Law, and Third World Quarterly, among other.

Sidsel Roalkvam is Professor and Centre Director at the Centre for Development and Environment (SUM) at the University of Oslo. Her academic interests are: Global Health, Maternal and Child Health, HIV and AIDS, Crisis, Community Capacity, Religion and illness, and Gender. 


Course Schedule:

Day 1 – Wednesday 28 November:

10.00-11.30  Welcome and Introduction (#1):  State of the art (Horst/Kolås/Sandvik)

11.30-1215  Lunch

12.15-14.00 Lecture (#2):     Displacement and the anthropology of the good (Cindy Horst)

14.15-16.00 Lecture (#3):    Reflections on humanity and humanitarianism in anthropology (Bill Derman)

Day 2 – Thursday 29 November:

09.00-0915:  Welcome and overview  Kristin Bergtora Sandvik

09.15-10.00: Lecture (#4)  The critical potential of Anthropology in the Humanitarian field: Studying up, down or sidewise? (Åshild Kolås)

11.15-13.00    Lecture (#5):    The humanitarian-security  nexus (Antonio de Lauri)

13.00-1400: Lunch

1400-1545: Lecture (#6):  Sustaining  Ability in Times of Crisis (Sidsel Roaldkvam)

Course dinner

Day 3 – Friday 30 November:

09.30-11-15. Lecture  (#7): The formalization of disputes: bureaucratization, criminalization and litigation in aid  (Kristin Bergtora Sandvik) 

11.30- 13:00 Lecture (#8) Roundtable & working lunch: What is aid? Humanitarian objects, financialization and   how to study it (Kristin Bergtora Sandvik and student interventions)

13.15-14.00: Wrap up and feedback


Essay deadline:  December 20 2018 - evaluated by February 1st 2019.


Upon full participation and the satisfactory completion of a course essay, the course equals 5 ECTS according to the standards of the University of Oslo. Participants must get an overview of the readings, participate actively in the lectures and submit a course essay that is marked as "pass". 

An essay proposal should be submitted to the course leader for approval by November 27 on email ( The proposal should consist of a research question, an abstract/outline of about 200 words, and a paragraph on how the question relates to the course literature.

Essay deadline:  December 20 2018 - evaluated by February 1st 2019.


Application deadline: 16 September, 2018  

There is no participation fee, but the cost of transportation and accommodation must be covered by the participants. 

Applicants will be notified about the outcome of their application within a week after the deadline.

Course Literature:

Course literature: 

(#1) Welcome and Introduction Lecture   the state of the art  

Atlani-Duault, Laëtitia and Jean-Pierre Dozon, "Colonization, Development, Humanitarian Aid: Towards a Political Anthropology of International Aid" (Originally published in French: "Colonisation, développement, aide humanitaire. Pour une anthropologie de l'aide internationale"), Ethnologie française 41, 3 (2011): 393-403; 

Ticktin, Miriam. "Transnational humanitarianism." Annual Review of Anthropology 43 (2014): 273-289.

 Heintze, Hans-Joachin, Andrej Zwitter and Ronan McDermott. "The humanitarian challenge and the aims and scope of the Journal of International Humanitarian Action". Journal of International Humanitarian Action 1, 5 (2016). DOI 10.1186/s41018-016-0005-9;

 Billaud, Julie and Antonio de Lauri. "Humanitarian Theatre: Normality and the Carnivalesque in Afghanistan", pp. 57-77 in Antonio de Lauri, ed. The Politics of Humanitarianism: Power, Ideology and Aid, London: I.B.Tauris & Co. Ltd (2016);

 De Lauri, Antonio "Introduction" in De Lauri, A. (Ed.) The Politics of Humanitarianism: Power, Ideology and Aid London: I.B.Tauris. (2016).

(#2) Humanitarianism and displacement 

Gabiam, N. (2012) 'When "Humanitarianism" Becomes "Development": The Politics of International Aid in Syria's Palestinian Refugee Camps' American Anthropologist 114(1): 95-107.

Horst, C. and Nur, A. (2016) 'Governing mobility through humanitarianism in South-central Somalia: compromising protection for the sake of return?' Development and Change 47(3): 542-62.

Malkki, L. (1996) 'Speechless Emissaries: Refugees, Humanitarianism, and Dehistoricization' Cultural Anthropology 11(3: 377-404.

(#3) Reflections on humanity and humanitarianism in anthropology

Sillitoe, Paul. "The search for relevance: a brief history of applied anthropology." History and Anthropology 17.1 (2006): 1-19.

Divon, Shai A., and Bill Derman. United States Assistance Policy in Africa: Exceptional Power. Routledge, 2017, conclusions.


(#4) The critical potential of Anthropology in the Humanitarian field: Studying up, down or sidewise?

Carayannis, Tatiana. "Review of Peaceland: Conflict resolution and the everyday politics of international intervention, by Séverine Autesserre. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2014." Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 29, 1 (2016): 337-341, DOI: 10.1080/09557571.2015.1106067; 

 Cunliffe, Philip. "Review of Peaceland: Conflict resolution and the everyday politics of international intervention, by Séverine Autesserre. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2014." Perspectives on Politics 13, 1 (2015): 241-242;

 Eggen, Øyvind. "Review of Adventures in Aidland. The anthropology of professionals in international development, by David Mosse (ed), New York: Berghahn Books, 2011." Forum for Development Studies 39, 1 (2012): 135–137;

 Guilhot, Nicolas. "The anthropologist as witness: humanitarianism between ethnography and critique." Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism, and Development 3.1 (2012): 81-101;

 Nascimento, Daniela. "One step forward, two steps back? Humanitarian Challenges and Dilemmas in Crisis Settings." The Journal of Humanitarian Assistance. Field Experience and Current Research on Humanitarian Action and Policy: 18 February 2015.


 (#5) Lecture   The humanitarian-security  nexus

De Lauri, Antonio. "Humanitarian militarism and the production of humanity." Social Anthropology (2018).

Williams, Jill M. "The safety/security nexus and the humanitarianisation of border enforcement." The Geographical Journal 182.1 (2016): 27-37.

Gusterson, Hugh "Human Terrain: Is Resistance Futile?" (2011).


(#6) Sustaining  Ability in Times of Crisis

Tierney, Kathleen, Christine Bevc, and Erica Kuligowski. "Metaphors matter: Disaster myths, media frames, and their consequences in Hurricane Katrina." The annals of the American academy of political and social science 604.1 (2006): 57-81. DOI: 10.1177/0002716205285589

Latimer, Joanna Latimer and Rolland Munro, Keeping & Dwelling : Relational Extension, the Idea of Home, and Otherness, Space and Culture 2009 12: 317 DOI: 10.1177/1206331209337565


(#7) Lecture The formalization of disputes: bureaucratization, criminalization and litigation in aid 

Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora. "Blurring Boundaries: Refugee Resettlement in Kampala—between the Formal, the Informal, and the Illegal." PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 34.1 (2011): 11-32

Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora (manuscript on file with author 2018) Humanitarians in Court: How Duty of care travelled from human resources to legal liability

Skinner & Lester "Humanitarianism and Empire: New Research Agendas, in The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History"(2012)


(#8) Roundtable: What is aid? Humanitarian objects, financialization and   how to study it

Scott-Smith, Tom. "The fetishism of humanitarian objects and the management of malnutrition in emergencies." Third World Quarterly 34.5 (2013): 913-928.

Redfield, Peter. "Fluid technologies: the bush pump, the LifeStraw® and microworlds of humanitarian design." Social Studies of Science 46.2 (2016): 159-183.

Schwittay, Anke. "Designing development: humanitarian design in the financial inclusion assemblage." PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 37.1 (2014): 29-47.

Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora. "Now is the time to deliver: looking for humanitarian innovation's theory of change." Journal of International Humanitarian Action 2.1 (2017): 8.